Thursday, November 28, 2013

Forward the Foundation

Forward the Foundation is the final book that Asimov published. It deals with Hari Seldon as he ages and develops his psychohistory. Along the way, he sees almost everyone close to him leave this world before him. His wife is shown to be a robot and destroyed by somebody that didn't like her. (This book hints at her super-human strength and lack of aging, but he appear to not know that she is one until her destruction.) The "robot" minister leaves (leaving Hari as the minister.) The emperor is assassinated. His closest psychohistory coworker dies from overwork. His adopted son dies in a rebellion, while his daughter-in-law and one daughter are "lost in space." Hari himself eventually dies at the end.

The galactic empire gradually starts to fall apart. Asimov appears to be espousing some of his politics in the view of how it happens. The beauracracy (and especially taxation mechanism) grows too big. Dissafection and corruption within lead to major events without. Police and security become too independent. Democratic institutions slow real progress.

Eventually, Hari discovers that his granddaughter is a mind reader. She locates some other "mentalics" and these people are used to set up the second foundation. They also use their power of persuasion to help get access to the library and get the funds needed to set up the first foundation to create the galactic encyclopedia at the end of Galaxy.

The "science fiction" in this story is rather weak. Computers are seen as something through the "mainframe age", seeming to be less advanced than they are today. Asimov's obsession with robots grants them strange significance. Psychohistory does seem somewhat plausible. However, it is more an issue with getting all the needed datapoints than crafting intricate equations. (and why would people care so much about it?) Mind reading and pushing? Yeah I guess that could be interesting.

The story is, however, more about growing old. Hari is concerned with his age. We have sections as he reaches each decade of life. The "big picture" events in the plot all seem a little too contrived to be believable. A few people always seem to know exactly what needs to be done at a certain point in time, whether for good or for bad. The dumb luck and predictive power play too important of a role to be believable. In the end, Seldon manages to survive to create the foundation that can save the world from millenia of fighting. But, he still dies. It makes for an ok story. (At least he wasn't hunting for earth!) However, missing it is no great loss.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Foundation's Edge

This was the first of the "written because there was fan demand" foundation books. It seemed better than the other two that I have read. However, it deals with similar themes and the story of finding planet earth.

Here we have parallel stories of both the first and second foundation. Members of each fall out of favor with their group and are sent on missions. They end up finding each other on Gaia, where one has been "recruited" to make a decision on the course of humanity. He decides on "galaxia" instead of the basic Seldon plan. This most of "chosen" to provide for the "free choice" rather than forceful adoption. People of Gaia are all independent parts of a collective. However, they must chose to do that. (The Mule from the main Foundation books was a rougue escapee from there.) Through the mind control mechanism, the others have been send back thinking they have eeked out a minor victory.

There seems to be some concern here with institutions becoming too old and set in their ways. New blood is needed to invigorate them. However, the old blood often tries to push out the more radical ideas. The desire of individual legacy can often interfere with the long term goals of the institution itself.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink

This book starts out well. It details the origins and early history of the Coca Cola company. It places the beverage and the company clearly in its place and time and debunks some of the "creation myths" that are commonly proffered. It then brings it towards today, detailing many of the social and legal struggles that it has faced as it has grown to be the behemoth it is today. There were plenty of unsavory characters and actions in the process. However, there were also many innovations that were carried out well.

After spending the first third of the book on the narrative it begins to focus on contemporary issues. The battle over obesity and childhood marketing is well described. Coke clearly provides a beverage that provides minimal nutritional value and is consumed primarily due to the marketing. Coke has signed marketing agreements to "force" school children to have only access to coke products in return to much needed funds for schools. (However, this often exposes them to the very beverages that they are taught to avoid.) High fructose corn syrup-laden beverages have also been shown to encourage people to consume more calories and their consumption appears correlated with increases in obesity.)

Bottled water is also an issue. Coke has tried to branch out into the "healthy" beverage. However, they don't want to cannibalize the sales of their sugary beverages, so they end up positioning it as an alternative to tap water. This creates problems, because there water is primarily glorified tap water. Most consumers can't even tell the difference in the water. Instead of replacing sugary drinks with bottled water, most people end up replacing tap water. This results in increased pollution (due to the production and shipping of the bottles). It also costs a whole lot more. Coke is criticized for this behavior. (However, the whole industry blame. There are also cultural issues. I don't think I've seen a single water fountain in China, pretty much forcing you to buy bottled water if you have not carried it yourself.)

The final section on international and labor issues takes up the bulk of the book. Alas, this presents the least convincing argument. I found myself siding more with the company in this section. The "allegations" seems to center around a couple circumstantial accusations that are repeated ad nauseum by activists to further their agenda. In many cases it seems that they are attacking Coke for something that commonly occurs everywhere in the country. Sure, the big multinational may be easy to blame, but often their behavior is "above average" for the country. What good does it do to simply replace Pepsi with Coke in the US because some union in Colombia had issues with paramilitaries years ago. This could discourage any further change (because they will still be attacked for old problems.) It could also benefit other big companies that have similar problems.

Cut off the last section and this book is a great history and expose of Coke. The last section, alas dilutes the argument. However, you still find yourself amazed that one company has convinced so many people to drink a beverage that isn't nutrition and doesn't taste good.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Nurtureshock analyzes some trends in child-rearing and refutes many commonly accepted notions. They use scientific studies to refute fads (which were started in part due to other scientific studies.)

One section talks about praise. It was assumed that praise helps kids to succeed, while criticism causes them to fail. However, it turns out that it is how it is done that is more important. Praising a kid for being "smart" will often cause them to give up earlier rather trying hard to learn difficult subjects. Praising them for being a hard worker is more likely to encourage additional hard work. Similarly encouraging them to analyze areas and self-improve will produce better results than simply praising for good work.

There is also plenty of analysis of our educational system. Gifted programs and private schools often use a cognitive test on young children to grant admission. However, these are very poor predictors at young ages. Programs also lack mechanisms for kids to "leave" the program. (What would happen if they just assigned random people to be "gifted".)

Early preschool programs are also shown to have minimal long-term impact. In the short-term, preschoolers see improvement. However, this improvement tapers off in the long term. (This is likely a case of confusing cause and effect. Kids that attend preschool tend to have more supportive parents and thus perform better.)

Lack of sleep has been shown to have an extremely negative impact on younger children and adolescents. However, in an attempt to help them to succeed, many parents are overscheduling their children, reducing sleep.

The analysis of spanking best encapsulates the book. Studies have shown that spanking has a negative impact on children. However, studies among black and evangelical Christians show no negative impact. It seems that if spanking is a normal part of the culture, it is ok. However, if the parents view it as a negative aberration, it is bad.

TV and media also have an unexpected impact. Some violent shows show a small increase in physical violence among children. However, peaceful "educational" shows such as Arthur often show an even more dramatic increase in negative relational behavior among children. They see the negative behavior modeled and duplicate it (yet don't grasp that they are actually supposed to be following the "solution" not the negative behavior.) These even extends to books such as Berenstein Bears that are supposed to be teaching positive traits, but spend much of the time modeling the bad trait.

There are many studies about raising children out there. However, children are a diverse group. What works for one may not work for another. There is also the matter of understanding the details. Fads often attempt to find the key "thing" that helps produce great children. However, it is often a complete package that is needed. With children it is often the case that "positive characteristics" and "negative characteristics" run perpendicular rather than on a continuum. Kids may have a lot of a "bad characteristic" as well as a lot of its "opposite". Increasing the good may not reduce the bad.

Perhaps using "instinct" to parent is not so bad after all - as long as it has not been corrupted by scientific studies.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Eye of the World

I really liked Brandon Sanderson's young adult Alcatraz books. That inspired me to try out some of his mistborn books, despite my poor experience with other high fantasy. They were actually good books (though not quite up to the Alcatraz quality.) Sanderson has also written the final books in Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. He was chosen to do so after Jordan's widow was impressed by his Mistborn books. I want to read the Sanderson books. However, since they are in the end of the series, it would probably be best to start with book one. Hopefully the series would be as good as Sanderson's.

Thus, I am starting on Eye of the World. The book is really slow going. I'm halfway through and not a whole lot has happened so far. There has been some conflict. People fled a village. There is some gender-linked magic. There are some half-human monsters that fight.

Now I've made it to the end, and there still hasn't been a whole lot of stuff happening. Its tough to understand what the purpose was of all the words. The characters seem fairly flat, the action is pedestrian. I fell asleep listening to part of the audiobook and didn't seem to miss much. Apparently, Jordan tried to write his novel in the style of Tolkien. At least he got the tedium part right.

There are people out there that like the work of Tolkien and Jordan. Alas, I am not one of them. If they were shorter books, I might consider slogging through. But a dozen big fat novels? Nope. I think I'll be skipping to the end to get to Sanderson's novels. At least has a track record of fantasy that I can handle.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Foundation and Earth

This is one of the "later" foundations books that Asimov wrote because people wanted to write them. We start with Travize on Gaia. Gaia is a collective mind where everybody shares the thoughts of everyone else, whether they be thoughts or emotions. Travize is going on a mission to try to find the legendary planet Earth.

Most of the novel consists of the group traveling around ancient, "uncharted" planets trying to find earth. Asimov uses this as a route to explore how isolated societies can fall. We have one planet that is now devoid of people, but now ruled by dogs and other carnivores. Another planet has people that have become hermaphrodites in order to not require the interaction with other humans and obtain maximal "personal freedom". (They also produce power on their own through 'tranducer lobes'.) Another society has a primitive culture that has advances in biotechnology and weather manipulation. They seem very peaceful. However, in order to maintain their their isolation, they inflict visitors with a deadly virus.

And so the novel goes, exploring these and a few other planets in order to find out more about the legendary earth (and hopefully find earth itself.) The exploration suffers from being very tied into the time Asimov's writings. These societies are separated by vast distances of space and time, yet they are very late-20th century in their outlook and behaviors. A "primitive" society looks a lot like 18th century Polynesia, despite being settled from earth many years in our future. (They also manage to maintain the same language despite thousands of year of time passing.) There are occasional "big differences" in technology, but somehow these don't cause any alterations to the society beyond their direct impacts.

Eventually the protagonists find earth. However, as in the legends, it appears to be too radioactive to support life. However, through something that looks like happenstance they end up on the moon, where a 20,000 year old robot has been manipulating human activity for some time.

The robot is on its last legs an has been quietly manipulating them so they can arrive there. This is an Asimovian robot with strong human characteristics. (The society at large is devoid of robots, viewing them as something that leads to degeneration.) The robot can manipulate people. However, it must adhere to the laws of robotics which require it to help humans and humankind. Thus it relies on Travize to make the decision to implement "Galaxia" instead of the Seldon plan for the betterment of humanity. Travize agrees and everything is happy.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

The Cat Who Walks Through Walls is subtitled "A comedy of manners." A lot of really bizarre things happen to the main characters. They react to them in a matter-of-fact way. (The opening starts with a guy sitting down next to the main character and asking him to kill a guy. Then the guy is suddenly killed himself. The restaurant staff quickly cleans things up, and nobody in the restaurant even seems to notice.) Later the guy and his soon-to-be-wife find themselves locked out of their apartments and just go with the flow as they have to move.

Things gradually get weirder and weirder. There is some time travel group that goes on alternate histories. They save people from all sorts of bizarre things so that they can influence future events. Some alternate paths turn out worse than the one they were trying to avoid. (For example, preventing a tyrant may actually lead to global destruction in a nuclear war.) Different key events may happen in different ways in different alternate histories. We also get computers that become self-aware and a number of Heinlein's political beliefs (free-love military conservatism.)

This contains a number of similar characters of other books such as Moon is a Harsh Mistress. While it starts out with some interesting story, that gets lost in the final 3/4s of the book as more space gets spent on the random beliefs and just plain randomness.